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Herbie's Vintage 72:
Balaban's fans will enjoy Herbies's Vintage 72
in a satisfied feeling of a wonderful evening out. But I had to challenge my
preconceptions: Would I have been as happy if I didn't bring along 30-some
years of fond memories of this location?
< Linguine with rabbit tenderloin
From 1972 until last year, the spot at 405 North Euclid Avenue had been known
as Balaban's, establishing its reputation under owner Herb Balaban.
After Herb sold it, it moved through a succession of owners. In 2006, it was
sold to an outside group, who kept it as Balaban's but undertook an ultimately
unsuccessful experiment in "modernizing" the menu and approach.
The owners of Herbie's, Aaron Teitelbaum and Jeff Orbin of Monarch restaurant
in Maplewood, closed on the space in August but didn't buy the Balaban's name.
Nonetheless, the menu draws upon many of Balaban's longtime favorite dishes.
Given its emphasis on the past, Herbie's isn't a place to seek out a sous vide
lobster or gelées or foams or any other cutting-edge dining experiences.
But there's plenty of simple satisfaction to be found in entrees such as a duo
of duck ($27), a breast cooked with grilled edges and a firm, medium-rare
center, with duck confit mixed into a hashlike mixture in an accompanying cake
served on the side.
Peppercorn-and-coriander-encrusted yellowfin tuna ($26) had two medium-rare
slices about an inch thick, the vaguely orange overtones of the coriander
balancing the kick of the peppercorns. One slice was balanced on a
mushroom-risotto cake, with a striking spike of tempura-fried bok choy rising
up from in between.
Herbie's differentiates between its "dinner menu" and its "bistro menu" — the
bistro being the enclosed sidewalk café front space in the restaurant — but it
appeared that diners could order from either regardless of where they were
We stuck exclusively with the bistro menu on one visit and were rewarded with a
nightly special of a bicolored linguine tossed with three strips of rabbit
tenderloin in a Marsala cream sauce. The rabbit had an appearance and firmness
similar to a miniature pork tenderloin, with a mild flavor that perfectly
picked up the gentle, winey sweetness of the sauce.
< Peppercorn-and-coriander-encrusted yellowfin tuna
The oyster selection rotates, and our oysters of the evening were called Salty
Pond, an East Coast variety whose meat spread widely across the shell but
wasn't particularly thick, with a crisp salty-sea flavor that mirrored their
name. They came with the typical accompaniments of horseradish, cocktail sauce
and mignonette (a tangy champagne-vinegar sauce with diced shallots), but at
$2.25 apiece were firmly in luxury-good territory.
< Smoked Missouri trout salad
The most notable of our appetizers was a smoked Missouri trout salad ($10). I'd
normally prefer no adulteration to well-smoked trout, but in this case folding
in a gentle horseradish crème fraîche was a perfect foil for a fluffy, slightly
sweet corn pancake underneath.
The famous Balaban's chocolate fritters are on the dessert menu but, as a
whole, I thought the selection was weak.
The interior of the revitalized restaurant still includes its signature
oversize French poster art and exposed brick, but the place seems to have been
sanded and scrubbed. And if you pay attention, virtually all of the background
music is from the early to mid-1970s.
I kept wondering about the whole past-perceptions thing, but I also kept
reaching the same conclusion: Herbie's Vintage 72 would be an excellent
restaurant in any era.
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